The government was forced to drop proposals to ease lockdown restrictions before Easter after scientific advisers warned that doing so could result in 55,000 more deaths, reports suggest.
Documents published by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) showed how modelling predicted that in four different scenarios of lifting lockdown, there would be a big rise in cases and deaths if restrictions lift too quickly.
Under one scenario, it was proposed that outdoor pubs and restaurants, outdoor attractions and non-essential retail could reopen by the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. However, the proposals were scrapped and replaced with the current 12 April goal for reopening these sectors.
Experts said in the documents that in all four scenarios modelled, there was a “substantial resurgence in hospital admissions and deaths”.
Speaking at the Downing Street briefing on Monday evening, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said that the government did not end up choosing any of the four scenarios modelled, but went for one that lays “between those options”.
He added that the modelling was carried out to “lay out scenarios, not to point to a single answer”.
“The sooner you open everything, the higher the risk of a bigger resurgence,” he said. “The slower you do it, the better.
“And importantly, if you want to understand what you’re doing because we don’t know for sure what the effects of the different measures are, do steps with enough time between them that you can measure data.
“And that means probably allowing something like four or five weeks between each step – four weeks to be able to measure the effects of the step you’ve just taken, and then a week for people to actually get ready in terms of what needs to happen.”
The Sage document advises that it “would take several weeks after lifting one set of restrictions to determine whether it is safe to take the next step”, which guides the government’s decision to wait at least five weeks between each stage of the roadmap out of lockdown.
It also recommends that “baseline measures” be maintained “to reduce transmission once restrictions are lifted”, and that by doing so, to “is almost certain to save many lives and minimise the threat to hospital capacity”.
However, according to the modelling by the University of Warwick and Imperial College London, the document says that even under the most optimistic set of assumptions, at least a further 30,000 Covid-19 deaths could occur.
“If restrictions were to be lifted by the start of May (over a period of two months, starting in March), hospital occupancy would be highly likely to reach levels higher than at the peak in January 2021, even under optimistic assumptions around vaccine rollout,” it cautioned.
“Relaxing measures later therefore has two benefits it allows prevalence to be brought down further, and also allows more people to be vaccinated before R (reproduction number) increases.
“The combined effect of these means a significantly smaller resurgence.”
Other experts have also expressed concern over the modelling released by Sage and fear that if restrictions are relaxed too far, new variants could drive up infection rates by September.
Professor Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Looking at the modelling, I have a worry that September this year will be very similar to September last year.
“With some luck, I think we may escape the predicted huge increase in cases in June and July, thanks to vaccines being better than we thought, but if we do, we will end up too relaxed and then be wide open for new vaccine escape variants to arrive and drive up the cases for September.
“Just as last year, we need to be planning to get test and trace to work, preferably by returning it to Public Health England, NHS and local government, during the hopefully quiet summer months, so that any new upturn in cases can be quickly spotted and averted without the need for lockdowns again next winter.
“Where is the planning to make us resilient to future outbreaks?” he adds. “If we don’t do it now, it will certainly be forgotten by the time we need it.”